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FLTLT Dave Ritchie spends a
"Not-so-Happy New Year" in the Libyan Desert...

Senussi, donkey and wrecked German Stuka.  [Painting by Sir William Dargie.  AWM ART23893]

1 January 1943...

We left at 10.30am on Tactical Reconnaissance escort  - two Hurricanes and 12 Kittyhawks; myself leading a section of top cover.  Went north along the coast and turned in east and then south opposite Crispi, about 10 miles south of Misurata.  During the turn, top cover became separated from bottom cover and l09s were reported taking-off a few miles away.  A couple of minutes later I saw another eight take off and said over the R/T: "the whole Luftwaffe's taking off over there."

Gordon Jones answered, "That's bloody nice isn't it!"  

Shortly after this I reported the eight Mel09s climbing up across in front of us.  When in range I turned left and attacked the last 109 in this gaggle.  I could see plenty of hits, and he did a climbing turn to the left, my fire following him round, when he dropped his nose and went for home pouring black smoke.

I was well separated from our formation then and hopped into the cloud which was at about 8,000 feet.  I turned north in cloud, coming out when I thought I might be able to attack one or two 109s that may have been cut off in the melee.  I could see no aircraft at all, either theirs or ours, and was just calling up to ask where our formation was when I looked back and saw that five 109s (which had just come out of cloud) were on my tail.

I did a steep turn and went through them firing at the leader, who dropped his nose and went out of the fight.  I immediately turned again to go back through them.  I noticed that the leader was still heading down (under control) and that two of the remaining four had climbed between me and the clouds and two were still on my level.

I went at these head-on, both of us firing at one another.  When through them I half-rolled and dived for the ground, hoping either to get away from them, or else get up enough speed to climb into the cloud.

After rolling out I looked back and there were still the two 109s on my tail.  I then pulled the boost-override and got about 68" [of manifold pressure] and twice tried to climb to the cloud.  But the two higher 109s fired at me each time as my speed was slowing in the climb.

The two behind me stayed on my tail firing many bursts, while I took violent evasive action.  I kept the nose down in a shallow dive, hoping I could draw away from them, but this was not the case.  A few minutes before, I had seen about six holes in the cowling of my engine just in front of the cockpit and I had felt other bullets hit the aircraft.

All this while, I had been calling over the R/T for assistance from the rest of the formation, but unfortunately they could not see me, having headed out to sea following the attack.

The two aircraft on my tail continued to fire many bursts at me, but I was doing the best I could to dodge the shells, and decided to go through them again.

I was only at 500 feet.  I did as tight a steep turn as I could, at the high speeds I was doing (over 360 mph).  I flicked out of this turn and just managed to pull out of it with the result that first the starboard wing tip and then the propeller tip hit the ground.

I held her off and locked my straps, deciding to crash-land.  I was very worried at this time as I realised I could not stay in the air much longer without them hitting me with their shells.

In one way this relieved me of one worry, as I now only had one thing to do, which was to crash-land.  I held off and straightened up for an instant, during which time I saw their bullets hitting the ground just over the port side of the aircraft, and without looking at the ground where I was going to land, I said a small prayer and eased the kite onto the ground.

I was doing over 300 mph when I hit.  There was a hell of a grind and a high bounce and I was pushing the stick back and forward, with my head banging back and forward on my neck and body tight against the straps.  I was blacked out and could see nothing.  The aircraft finally bounced up the 10ft bank of a small wadi and came to a stop in a grinding broadside, smothered in dust; it was a marvel that it did not turn right over on its back.

I immediately undid my straps and pulled my helmet off and jumped out, trying to run away from the aircraft, fearing an explosion (or  being strafed on the ground by the 109s).

The airscrew had fallen off and bounced about 20 yards in the air and bowled away as the plane skidded to a stop.

I attempted to run towards this, but fell over twice as my left leg had "gone to sleep" and I thought I must have been hit, which fortunately was not the case.  I'd hit the ground at 12 noon on New Year's Day 1943 ... my "Happy New Year" surprise.

I crouched behind the airscrew and spinner and watched the 109s come over the top of me. They turned and one came back overhead at about 50 feet having a good look at me and no doubt feeling very pleased with their work.  I was thankful that they had not strafed me, but swearing and cursing them all the while.

I went back to my aircraft when they went away and destroyed some of the secret equipment, which is a necessary action.  I pulled the ripcord of my 'chute out on the wing and was trying to cut the silk out of it, but could not manage as I had no knife.  I opened the back hatch of the aircraft and got the water-bottle, which was nearly empty, and the emergency rations.  I noticed that the aircraft's fuselage was snapped in front of the cockpit, and that there were shell holes in the cowling, but I did not have time to look for other holes.

I then left the aircraft as fast as I could walk heading due east.  I feared that an enemy patrol would come out to pick me up, knowing I was in enemy territory.  I walked about two miles down a wadi, and arriving at a clump of stunted bushes, I hid in the centre of the thickest one I could find to have a spell, make plans and see what was going to happen.

Just near the bush in which I was hidden was a well about 10 feet deep with about 2 feet of water in the bottom. I hacked the shrouds off the small silk pilot 'chute I had brought with me and tied them together. Then I lowered my empty water bottle down the well and was able to fill it. There was a dead goat or gazelle or some horned animal in the bottom and a green scum on the water, but I was only too thankful to have water, no matter what its nature.

I opened my emergency rations and decided I had enough water and food for 10 days at a pinch.

The greatest impression I had was of the immense silence of the desert around me, after the noise of the aircraft ... and the peacefulness of it all after the terrible predicament that I had been in less than an hour ago.  I felt as happy as could be at still being alive, and reflected upon the prospects ahead of me - either being taken P.O.W. by the enemy or eventually getting back to our own lines, both immensely better than being dead or injured.

I was not sure whether to lie low in the daytime to avoid being seen or to get as far away from my aircraft as possible in case they sent out a search party.  I decided on the latter.  I had my maps in the pocket of my flying suit and had pinpointed myself about 60 miles west of our advanced lines.

I had crossed tracks of gazelles and goats, and once or twice camel tracks, so I knew there would be Senussi natives in the district.  A few times, at scattered intervals, I crossed lorry and tank tracks and once I saw men's footprints beside where a lorry had pulled up.  I decided that if I walked along openly, I would be taken by anyone who saw me in the distance as a Senussi and they would not bother about me.  This may have been right or wrong.  It turned out right.

After about an hour's walking I saw what I took to be an encampment or town to the right of me, about 4 miles to the south east.  I decided to skirt this and get a closer look at it; and keeping to the low ground, was doing this, when there were three shots fired at me from a trig point about a mile away.

They fell short of me and I lay on the ground for a couple of minutes and then got up, waved my arm and walked away in the direction I had come, quite openly.  Nothing more happened and I decided to leave the camp alone, and continue due east.  After about half an hour, I heard an armoured car or tank in the distance and lay on the side of a hill as inconspicuously as possible to see what would eventuate.  At this time I had another look at my maps, and then went through my pockets and destroyed every scrap of paper which may have given any information to the enemy.  One thing I tore up was one of the new British Military Authority pound notes, which I had had signed by all the members of the squadron on Christmas Eve to keep as a souvenir.  This hurt - I can tell you!

The noise of the patrol soon died away without my having seen anything and I got up and continued on my way.  There were miles of desert all round me with only an odd patch of stunted bushes above the skyline.  These had me worried as they looked like all sorts of things -- men, tanks, lorries, camps etc.

There was a heavy layer of cirro-stratus cloud, and away to the east I could see the reflection of the sea on the clouds, which acted as a good pointer for me.  Every time I crossed a rise I expected to see the sea and the coast road ahead of me.  My plan was to sit tight when I found this road and wait till some British traffic appeared on it, as I knew it eventually would, even if it took some days.  I thought I may be able to get some information about the enemy in the meanwhile.

After having walked for about three hours, I saw in the distance a Senussi driving three donkeys ahead of him at right angles to my line of direction.  I changed course and walked and ran to make an interception on him.  I had already walked a long way in the sun, wearing flying boots in addition, and this last burst practically finished me.

I was anxious as to whether this native (who on closer view I found to have a lad aged about 10 with him) would be friendly or not.  He could take me to either the enemy or our own forces, whichever he thought would reward him best, and the alternative he chose was rather important to me.

I approached him in a very friendly manner, smiling, and saluted him with respect.  I knew enough Arabic to tell him I was a pilot and wanted to be taken to the English.  He was a young man and appeared friendly and beckoned me to follow him, so I made the best of things and went with him.  His three donkeys were carrying cans of water and the donkeys and Arabs walked along at a very brisk pace.  It was too fast for me and the stony ground hurt my feet through the flying boots.  I followed them for an hour and a quarter gradually getting more exhausted and further behind them.

I passed dug-in enemy positions, which had been vacated, and crossed lorry and tank tracks.  I had been giving Horlicks [malted milk] tablets to both the Arabs in an effort of friendliness and I feel sure they helped me to get the friendly treatment that I ultimately received.

Eventually we reached a green hollow in which were about ten native tents in two groups.  I was very tired and sat on the ground whilst the donkeys were being unloaded.  I tried to find out how far away the British lines were, but knew full well that the Arabs idea of distance was very vague and this combined with my scanty knowledge of their language gained me little information.

However I decided that I would need a donkey to ride if I were to go much further as my feet were very sore and tired.  I told them I would like to hire or buy the donkey that was in best condition of the three.

Having unloaded their donkeys, they led me over towards the second group of tents about 150 yards away.  There, a very large native dog barked at me and I realised why the dog tracks I had passed seemed so large - they looked big enough for a lion!

In a minute or two a tall Senussi with a white rope all about him and covered to the eyes, left the tents and came towards us.  I took him to be the Sheik (rightly so) and greeted him very respectfully with many "Saidas."  He seemed friendly enough and returned my salute.  He took the cloth from his face which was light in colour and he had freckles on his nose!

I had been sitting down as he approached and got up to say my say, and no doubt he saw how tired I was, and he treated me with much consideration.  I told him all my troubles and he led me over to his tent.  A number of children and young girls came out and I gave them all two Horlicks tablets each, to their saying: "Caramel quiess."

Soon they were back with all the toddlers so I gave them a share too.

The old Sheik seemed very pleased about this.  He took me to his tent which was swept scrupulously clean and an old hag had just finished spreading the best carpet near the entrance.  He motioned me to sit down and then drew his robe round him and sat beside me in a very friendly manner.  I felt that everything was going to be alright and was much happier than before when I was in doubt about my ultimate disposal.

He had a lad light a camel-thorn fire just at the entrance to the tent, and a small kettle was brought and put on the fire.  Then along came a tray with two small teapots, inside each of which was a small glass.

The kettle was soon boiling and he pulled out two cloth bags containing tea and sugar a made a brew of strong sweet tea.

Meanwhile two more elderly Senussi had arrived and I greeted them very civilly.  The rest was doing me good and I felt much better and happier.  I had been trying to talk to the chief to find out my whereabouts and arrange for donkey transport.  He told me that I was west of Wadi bei el Kebir, where all the fighting had been going on for the past week.

There was a great deal of aerial activity going on all the afternoon; I saw a gaggle of Stukas fly over and unload their bombs.  There was a good deal of gunfire for hours, both artillery and anti-aircraft, so I was worried about enemy patrols.

I could see this Senussi tribe had taken a good view of me and would help as much as possible.  The Sheik told me that he and one other would take me to the "Ingleesi."  I wanted to find out how long this would take, but as we had language difficulties and I was unable to do so.

The tea was soon ready; the chief poured out the two glasses and drank his own straight off.  I thought this may have been some point of honour so I tried to do the same, but burnt my mouth.  However I swallowed it.  The two other old chaps drank theirs off and then I was given another glass which was somewhat cooler.  The tea was very sweet and strong but did me good.

Meanwhile the good carpet had been taken from the tent and soon the donkey appeared outside the tent with the carpet on its back, hobbled to a camel thorn.  I had my pen out just then trying to help out the conversation by small diagrams.

We set out then, to my relief, as I was keen to be on my way.  My great worry was to be back to the Squadron as soon as possible, in order to cancel the signal posting me missing.

It took me three goes to get on the donkey as my legs were not the best, being very shaky and tired; then I was handed a large stick to guide the donkey, which had no bridle or reins.  I was very pleased to be making progress by other means than my own legs.  I did not care how heavy I was on the small donkey as long as he carried me, which is a change as I usually care for animals.  Soon we had left the encampment and I had a good send off with many "salaams" on both sides.  It was 5 pm.

After an hour's riding we reached the Wadi bei el Chebir.  Before we had crossed it, it was dark.  I was stretching my eyes to see some sign of our forces but could not.  It was very cold and my knees were shaking with cold and tiredness.

I gave up hope of seeing anything in the darkness and relied on the guide, who was walking very fast, nearly too fast for the donkey who kept dropping back.  They gave me a pointed stick to poke him in the wether to keep him moving and showed me how to say "Iqurry" to help him along.  I used both pretty freely, pity the poor donkey.  Finally one of the Senussi walked behind prodding him.  My only concern was to get back.

From time to time we heard noises not far off.  The natives pointed and cautioned me against smoking, saying "Taltaiaos."  I kept the guides going well with cigarettes and Horlicks.  I had plenty of each, fortunately

At 8 o'clock I fell off the donkey so he could climb a steep rise which he would not climb with me on his back.

When we got to the top we could see in the distance star shells in the air and I began to feel more hopeful.  I had been taking the "pep pills" in the emergency ration and I took another one to keep me going till we got there.

The Senussi walked on tirelessly and at 9 o'clock after several halts to listen, they pointed to the bulk of a lorry standing above the horizon in the dark.  I started to call out then, as I was nervous that they might fire on us.  The natives were also very nervous that they might be shot and took a good deal of encouraging to go on at this stage.

I rode for a quarter of an hour calling out to reassure any guards who may have been awake and eventually got an answer.  I heard the bolts of some rifles rattle and called out in great alarm lest they shoot me.  At this stage I was riding along with a blanket over my head and shoulders as it was so cold.  I kept calling till we got close to them and I told the guards that I was a British pilot who had been shot down and had come back.  They told me they had been nervous, as prisoners had been walking in all day.

They took me and my guides to the Intelligence Officer who told me I had arrived at H.Q. of 7th Armoured Division.  I arranged for my guides to be looked after for the night and then was then asked by the I/O (name Wallace) if I had brought my bed or blankets with me.  I tore no mean strip off him, then I was taken for a meal and eventually given a bed beside their ambulance in the open.  I slept very well in spite of the cold.

Next morning my first care was to see my guides.  They had been fed and accommodated by the Western Desert Liaison officer.  I felt a great deal of gratitude to these Senussi who had brought me back without promise of reward.  I wanted to make sure they were properly compensated.  I went over to give each of the natives a chit.  They seemed glad to see me when I drove up and my old donkey was tied up nearby with his head down grazing.

During the previous evening the Sheik and his off-sider and I had exchanged names.  The Sheik's name was Saad and the other Hamid, and as a means of encouragement when travelling along in the dark we kept calling one another's name.  The old Sheik would call out "David" and I would call out "Saad". When I told him my name first, he shook my hand and put his arm round my shoulder and seemed very pleased.  

I felt really grateful to old Saad and felt I owed him a great deal.  I gave each of them a chit on which I'd written words to the effect that they had done me a great service and I wished that they should be given plenty of tea and sugar plus some money.  I said goodbye to them and felt sorry to see the last of the men who had looked after me so well.  I got the feeling that they would be glad to see me again anytime.

We left then in a jeep for 3 Squadron RAAF and after five hours travelling over rough roads going as fast as possible, we arrived back at the Squadron.  I called at the Ops. truck and told then to let Wing know I was back.  I drove to the mess and was just stepping out when someone called out, "Look who's here!" and the chaps rushed out and congratulated me on being back, making me feel as though 1 was really welcome and they really were glad to see me back.  This was 2.30pm.

I was relieved to be back after all the strain, and so glad to see all the chaps and the old mess, that I couldn't say anything because I wanted to have a good cry.  I had tears in my eyes and could only rush in to buy a drink to dodge the moment.

They spent the afternoon buying me drinks and I had to tell the tale about three times.  I even went to sleep twice in the mess.  A signal had gone off posting me missing, but another one was sent to cancel it.  From Army reports, it looks as though I will get the 109 I think I shot down, confirmed.  A happy ending after all.

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